It's Christmas - but not here

Updated: Dec 18, 2018, 10:43 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Why does a Buddhist country celebrate Christmas with abandon, while a Hindu one looks the other way?

The EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok is all lit up for Christmas
The EmQuartier shopping mall in Bangkok is all lit up for Christmas

C Y GopinathDefinitely Christmas. The imitation pine tree, four storeys tall and strung with LED lights, was a dead giveaway. There were also fat men in red and white, with peaked floppy caps and white beards, going Ho Ho Ho, and that's a sure sign of Christmas. And yep, there's the reindeer herd, with sleighs and bells and the red-nosed one. And everywhere, all day and night long, the herald angels singing: Oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh, hey!!

The air has a feel to it - the light, cool breeze of winter, a sweet sense of cheer, like everyone is at peace. All is well. The lights and sounds start in late November and continue past Christmas and New Year's Day, well into January.

Which country am I describing?
This is Christmas in Thailand, where 94.5% of the population is Buddhist and only 1.17% Christian. They've not quite figured out when Christmas really starts and ends so they start earlier and end later, just to be safe. They just like the feeling.

Cut to a different country - yours and mine. Here, 2.3% of the population are Christian and 79.8% Hindu, but the population is so giant - 1.339 billion now - that small percentages translate into huge numbers. India's Christians alone equal half of Thailand's entire population.

How come in India, a supposedly secular nation, Christmas is not as exuberant as Diwali, Dussehra and Holi? Does Mumbai not light up like Bangkok because a mere 407,031 of its population of 18.41 million are Christians? I look at the non-Christian on the street in Mumbai, and I see a man who sees Christmas as someone else's festival.

A keen student of festivals might notice patterns: worldwide there tend to be more festivals around March, June, September, and December. Long before there were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, human beings had noticed that days and nights were not of the same length through the year. Ancient astronomers realised that the earth not only went around the sun but also wobbled side to side as it did so, changing the lengths of days and nights. The equator swung north to south in a six-monthly pattern, being closest to the sun in the northern hemisphere around June and furthest around December. These two days, variable but generally around the 21st of the month, were called the summer and winter solstices.

Halfway through the swing, roughly around March and September 21, the equator is the part of the earth nearest the sun. These days were called the spring and autumn equinoxes.

Solstices and equinoxes became special festival dates because they also marked the natural transitions of seasons and the start of planting or the end of harvesting. It seems humans do celebrate together, and more or less at the same times, because our lives are similar, though each culture might make up its own stories and traditions.

While India goes hogwild around Holi on March 20-21, it's Nyepi in Bali, Cherry Blossom festival in Japan and Las Fallas in Spain. In Thailand, Songkran, much like Holi, is celebrated around April 15 and everyone gets drenched welcoming summer. Christians worldwide mark their Easter Sunday on April 21, Bengalis start their new year on April 15 with Pohela Boishakh and Parsis celebrate Nowroze, their year's start. Muslims fast to mark Eid al Fitr. In September-October, spanning the autumn equinox, while Hindus celebrate Navratri, Dussera, Durga Puja and Diwali, and Jews observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Muslims mark Moharram and Bakr-id.

Except that Christmas stands out. Somehow, the birth of Jesus, and the gentle spirit of hope and peace surrounding it have come to belong to everyone, somehow universal, disconnected from solstices. For a brief moment within the chaos and cruelty of our times, there is a sense of well-being, kindness, charity - and yes, humanity. Just like English today is the linguistic glue that bonds cultures, Christmas floats beyond its religious roots, everyone's festival. Living in Africa, we grew our own genuine Christmas tree and would string it with lights and surprises for the children. Everyone felt good around Christmas.

Festivals teach us things that help us re-align our moral compasses. Dussehra reminds us that finally good triumphs over evil - well, most times anyway. And Christmas makes us aware of the endless power of hope, compassion and humanity to give us a better life. The soaring spirit of Christmas is captured perfectly in these words from the carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing - Peace on earth and mercy mild/ God and sinners reconciled/ Joyful, all ye nations rise/ Join the triumph of the skies.
It is Mumbai's deep loss when it minimises Christmas as a minority celebration limited to enclaves like Bandra and Byculla.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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